Perhaps we pray to be delivered from evil: that is religion. We cross our fingers that we don’t catch flu: that is superstition. Or we might place a few items with a written charm in a drawstring pouch and wear during a full moon: that is magic. All different, but all ways to a similar end: the age-old desire for protection.
Perhaps, indeed, the need for protection was where it all began. Protection must have been a primal need, and may have developed with man’s first consciousness. Early humans would have protected themselves by enacting ritual observances, making propitiatory offerings, wearing jewellery and possessing sacred objects. Above them and their world hung the divine protection of the magical, mystical moon, the light that brought a pattern to the skies; that brought females of all kinds into season; that delivered one from darkness; that harnessed creation and seemed to be the point of it all. This was long before the advent of agriculture that many scholars believe issued in sun worship — the notion that death (the sinking sun, or the fallow period after harvest) must occur to ensure the continuance of life (dawn, or the birth of Spring).
By the time the society of the ancient Egyptians evolved, agriculture was the norm. People no longer depended on the moon to govern the fertility of the herds of wild or domestic animals that supplemented a diet of wild plants. Now they worshipped the Sun God (in his various and successive manifestations) whose cult centre was at Iwnw (City of Pillars), the city called by the Greeks Heliopolis, City of the Sun.
Religion might be seen as one’s way of interpreting the world, whether collectively or individually. In ancient Egypt there was a common thread of belief in the gods and their merits: these gods fused and blended into one another through the distance of place and time, but essentially from the Old Kingdom to Ptolemaic times there was a hazy ennead of nine gods that linked heavenly bodies to the natural world; and a triad of nuclear-family gods — mother, son and child — that was more immediate, local, and personal, and so touched the heart that survived late into the Roman period and eventually found its place in the Christian Holy Family. Then there were the gods with a definite role to play: Anubis who guarded the gate of the Underworld; Thoth, who presided over science and knowledge; Sekhmet the warrior goddess who was also associated with healing; and so on down to the minor gods such as Torwisert, goddess of childbirth, and the household god Bes. There was in addition a host of personal gods and goddesses to turn to when needed or to propitiate just in case; these have survived, most essentially (thanks largely to their being spread by soldiers throughout the Roman Empire) in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches as saints, each of whom has a particular aspect.
It has been common to interpret ancient religious worship as “magic”. This attitude, although not made with malicious intent; is dismissive of the levity of the early religious experience and presupposes a conviction in the superiority of modern thought. In other words, early religious and magical practices were thrown into a drawer labelled “pre-enlightenment”. (One might well question whether enlightenment begins at the door of fundamentalism in another guise, but that is a question for another day.)
The American philosopher Sam Harris says that, “any sustained exercise in reason must necessarily transcend national, religious and ethnic boundaries.” He goes on to say: “Even spirituality and ethics meet this criterion of universality because human beings, whatever their background, seem to converge on similar spiritual experiences and ethical insights when given the same methods of inquiry.” While it was left to future observers to make similar enlightened leaps of faith, the Arab scholar Al-Biruni (973-1048) was probably one of the first intellectuals to make comparative studies of other world religions from an anthropological point of view. Drawing heavily on what he knew of ancient Greece, Al-Biruni made lists of beliefs and rituals practised both by his various neighbours, including Christians and Jews, and by their ancestors, such as Zoroastrians and pagans. He had the doubtful honour of being kidnapped in 1017 by Sultan Mahmoud II (970-1030), the ruthless ruler of Ghazni in Central Asia who was bent on creating a court filled with experts and literary figures (among them the great Persian poet Firdausi (940-1021). Neither Al-Biruni nor Firdausi thought much of Mahmoud and both left written criticisms of him — although Al-Biruni was prudent enough to wait until after the king’s death, while Firdausi made his feelings clear in his famous work the Shahnameh which led to his expulsion from court.
Mahmoud II made 17 military incursions into the Indus Valley (in what is now Pakistan) solely in order to plunder the silver and gold objects in Hindu temples. Whether Al-Biruni accompanied Mahmoud on these excursions or interviewed Hindu captives brought to Ghazni is not known, but his scholarly interest in the Hindu religion led to his attempting to convince Mahmoud and those around him that the Hindu faith was a genuine one and that its adherents should not be treated as expendable, as had been the habit of the king and his warriors. Al-Biruni’s search for knowledge provided an invaluable insight into the origins and workings of the religions of the known world, and had history taken another direction and not followed the path that led to such fanatical institutions as the Spanish Inquisition and the European witch courts his immense work might have been better promulgated and appreciated. We might even, in a parallel world, have been spared doctrines that even today block the freedom of scientific advancement.
However, I digress. Let me return to ancient Egypt and the worship of the gods. This powerful nation of divergent dynasties and parricide-prone kings (and queens) — and even ruling houses from foreign and invading nations — was held together by an all-powerful religion. Worship was obligatory: whether king or commoner there was no choice in the matter. Nubian or Libyan; Persian, Greek or Roman; anyone with an eye on the domination of this northern end of the Nile had to forget their own gods and goddesses, or at best subject them to the almighty deities of Egypt.
Religion as practised by the high priests and officers of the court — which centred around the daily and annual rituals of the State gods and the pharaoh (himself deified) — was one thing, but the religion of the common folk was necessarily another. Ordinary people were denied access to the temples and had to make do with rituals of their own. Nor were they given the accord due to their superiors on death: not for them a daily journey in the celestial sun-boat, nor the pleasures of the hunt and harvest in the green and pleasant pastures of the afterlife. How those early Christian converts must have embraced the teaching of a God for all and all for God, with everyone attaining a fair share of Heaven at God’s right hand.
The ancient Egyptian craftsman or retainer or peasant farmer who moulded the overlord’s material possessions or swept his floors or ploughed his land; the woman who baked his bread; the musician who beat his drum or the girl who danced; what did these people expect of an afterlife in the days when only a body that had been carefully preserved by mummification could join the gods? Life for most people was short by today’s standards. In more than 3,000 years of documented history, Egypt passed through phases of economic decline and prosperity; of stability and revolt; of peace and war. For most the world has changed little since then in all these respects, but better nutrition and advances in medical science have allowed those of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy such conditions a longer and more comfortable life. This has given us the luxury of discarding many of the superstitions that helped our ancestors face adversity and ill health.
But just how far has our mindset changed? And is it fair to generalise? A spirit worshipper in Bali may have outwardly very different views on life and the universe than an Inuit shaman in the Arctic circle. There are, however, threads that unite them. Both see ritual — the offering of a bowl of flowers and rice of one, the chants and visions of the other — as essential gestures to commemorate ancestral beliefs. Life in ancient Egypt was hard, and for many it still is. Egyptians both Muslim and Christian are deeply religious and hold a profound sense of belief. Since, as we have seen, the world in many respects has changed so little during the last 5,000 years, can we not expect that the Egyptians themselves are essentially unchanged? Do they not nurture similar dreams and aspirations, similar hopes, and share similar fears? Surely it is only the veneer that has changed — one might imagine a young person in ancient Memphis or Thebes longing for a good quill pen as much as a young Cairene today hankers after a new iPad or mobile phone. He or she might in the past have anticipated the harvest of a carefully cultivated row of beans much as one today might look forward to a monthly pay cheque. We are years, not worlds apart.
Geraldine Pinch in the British Museum’s publication Magic in Ancient Egypt looks at 4,500 years of Egyptian magic, from amulets dating from the turn of the fourth millennium BC to magical texts written between the third millennium BC and about 500 AD. Pinch distinguishes between heka, or the magic that was used in the creation of Earth out of chaos and was a part all the deities as well as the pharaoh; and akhu, which she translates as enchantment, sorcery or spells. Pinch’s book is a vital source for discovering Egyptian magic through and through. Sir James George Frazer, whose The Golden Bough was first published in 1890 and who remains the most quoted authority on comparative religious magic, defined two types of magic as sympathetic magic, or that which will induce an event, for example a fall of rain, following a ceremony that imitates that event; and contagious magic, whereby an event can be induced by a spell, as in gaining the favourable response of a beloved.
Another form of sympathetic magic was the Evil Eye, and to avert it people drummed up a host of avoidance techniques. Each time we tell an actor to “break a leg” we are casting on him or her a sympathetic-aversion wish. The origin of this practice may be all but forgotten in the West today, but the Evil Eye still has a role to play in Egypt and can cast fear and suspicion over people in certain sections of society.
One wonders to what extent the daily rituals of our ancestors have been replaced by the commonplace activities of everyday living, and whether these needs and activities have stolen the time once spent on more reflective issues. Has the ritual of a morning invocation been overtaken by the ritual necessity of getting to work on time? And can we be sure, once there, to find our lucky parking space? Likewise we might be unable to resist the urge to flip a coin in a fountain and make a wish, but how often do we reflect that an offering and a plea to a water sprite ensured that her spring would flow that day?
Future articles in this series will focus on religion and magic in ancient Egypt; protective magic surrounding childbirth and the home; conjuring and illusion; and health and medical practices.